Skype, the internet communications service owned by Ebay, on Thursday accused its joint venture partner in China of keeping it in the dark about a censorship programme that involved the monitoring of politically sensitive terms on the service.
The accusation came as Ebay became the latest US internet company to be dragged into a public controversy over the potential use of its online service to aid Chinese monitoring of dissidents.
According to internet researchers in Canada, the Chinese arm of Skype has been routinely making and storing copies of politically sensitive text messages that users of its software tried to send. The joint venture is majority owned by Chinese Tom Online, which formed an alliance with Ebay three years ago.
The report, by the Information Warfare Monitor and a group under the OpenNet Initiative, has revived concerns about the role played by international companies in China's powerful and multi-layered internet censorship system.
Software offered by the Chinese joint venture has for years scanned text messages for politically sensitive words and blocked transmission of those judged suspect. Skype in 2006 assured users that "unsuitable" messages were "simply discarded and not...transmitted anywhere".
However, the Canadian report said researchers had found that the software issued by joint venture Tom-Skype was scanning messages for sensitive words or phrases such as "Taiwan Independence" and, if they were present, uploading the data to Tom servers in China.
The researchers also found that the servers were insecure, making it possible for outsiders to access them over the internet and find the identity of Tom-Skype users who had sent the censored messages.
In a statement, Skype president Josh Silverman said the US company was "very concerned" about each issues. "It was our understanding that it was not Tom's protocol to upload and store chat messages with certain keywords, and we are now inquiring with Tom to find out why the protocol changed," he added.
A spokeswoman for Skype refused to comment on what action the US company would take over being kept in the dark about the nature of the censorship, or whether the alleged lack of disclosure by Tom could jeopardise the joint venture. She added that Tom had acted to make its servers more secure since their vulnerability was disclosed by the Canadian researchers late on Wednesday.
By Richard Waters and Mure Dickie
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